Two local leaders joined about 40 others from around the U.S. and Canada in an intensive two-day emergency solidarity mission to southern Israel organized by the Jewish Federations of North America.
Some 40 Jewish community leaders from Philadelphia, New York, North Jersey, Memphis, Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Toronto, participated last week in an intensive two-day emergency solidarity mission to southern Israel. Organized by the Jewish Federations of North America, the trip was designed as an opportunity to visit communities directly affected by rocket attacks and to reassure residents that they were not alone.
Local participants included Betsy Sheerr, a longtime lay leader of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, and Rachel Gross, Federation’s director of Planned Giving and Endowments.
Gross’ participation coincided with a long-planned vacation with family and friends. She joined up with delegates in Ashdod, where they met with older adults, whose normal routine of eating daily hot meals at a day care center had been replaced by an emergency meals-on-wheels program delivered to their homes.
In nearby Ashkelon, they toured the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, which provides medical services for both Israeli and Palestinian victims. Delegates met with wounded soldiers and spoke with medical staff who are treating patients under extraordinary stress. During their visit, air-raid sirens wailed and delegates scurried for cover.
In Beersheva, they toured the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee-supported Center for Independent Living to learn about how the recent crisis challenges the disabled. Gross said she was impressed by the spirit and compassion of local children who volunteered their time to work with residents. And she was touched by a local man with a serious cardiac condition who is waiting for a heart transplant.
“He lives on the top floor of a building and cannot travel down the stairs to a bomb shelter,” she said. “When the sirens sound, he waits in a windowless room and prays that the rockets do not hit him.”
For Sheerr, the experience was unlike any of her many previous trips to Israel. “Visits with families who jump when they hear a door slam and whose traumatized children are awakened by sirens — night after night — bring home the reality of the long-term psychological effects of living this nightmare. One mother pondered aloud, which child do I grab first when the alarm sounds?”
In Sderot, a city located less than a mile from Gaza, they met with Mayor Alon Davidi, who outlined the practical and emotional challenges facing residents who live so close to the attacks. They also visited the Amigour Apartments, a public housing complex owned by the Jewish Agency for Israel and United Israel Appeal. They took a sobering tour of several apartments, each outfitted with its own bunker. One of the buildings sustained a direct hit from rocket fire.
Gross and Sheerr also met with Jewish Agency director Natan Sharansky, who joined them on a visit to Nachshonit Amusement Park, where children from Ofakim enjoyed a day of respite and relaxation.
At Kibbutz Kfar Aza, also close to the border, Ayelet Epstein, who cares for her three children alone while her husband serves in the army, told Gross that this is the fourth time in six years that they have experienced a war-like situation. “Four weeks ago, I heard four rocket alarms then, a fifth fell on the kibbutz without an alarm sounding,” Gross recalled her saying, noting that one convinced her to move with her children to another, safer location.
In Philadelphia’s Partnership 2Gether community of Netivot, the Philadelphia visitors, along with Tali Lidar, Federation’s Israel representative, discovered a fully stocked respite center for soldiers. Here, soldiers who had gone for days without showers were able to refresh themselves with baby wipes, enjoy home-cooked hot meals, have their hair cut by local barbers, replenish their supply of socks and underwear, and just relax for a little while. “Volunteers staff the center 24 hours a day, “ Gross said, adding that “everyone is helping to do what they can for the soliders.”
In a briefing to the group, Alon Shuster, the mayor of Sha’ar HaNegev, termed the current conflict “the most dramatic days in Israel since 1948,” and said the Hamas tunnels have struck great fear into the hearts of residents.
“Even after the battle ends,” Gross quoted him saying, just days before a cease-fire went into effect and Israeli troops withdrew from Gaza, “people will continue to live with the shock and trauma of what the situation would have been had the soldiers not come to help them.”